25 November 2016

Mouth cancer is a growing problem in the UK. With cases rising year-on-year, more people than ever before are having to face the effects of this destructive and terrible disease.

As part of November’s Mouth Cancer Action Month, we sat down with CEO of the Oral Health Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter OBE, to get answers to some of the most common questions asked about the disease so we could bring you everything you need to know about mouth cancer.

Q. Hi Nigel. Firstly, can you tell us what mouth cancer is?

Quite simply, it is a cancer that occurs in or around the mouth. It can happen anywhere in the oral cavity such as the gums and tongue, or be more widespread like inside the throat, on the neck, or even the lips. Most of us have heard of cancer affecting parts of the body such as the lungs or breasts, but very little is heard about mouth cancer. It’s a disease which often goes under the radar which is why very few of us know what we need to be looking out for.

Q. So what signs of mouth cancer should we be on the lookout for?

There are many initial signs of mouth cancer that everybody should be aware of and should be checking for regularly. The most common symptoms of mouth cancer include an ulcer which does not heal within a couple of weeks, these don’t have to be painful and can appear anywhere in the mouth or on the lips. We should also be on the lookout for any unusual red or white patches in our mouth, again this can be anywhere so we should check the roof, under the tongue and inside of the cheeks for anything which does not seem quite right. Like many other cancers, mouth cancer can also cause lumps to form, so any unusual lumps or bumps in the head or neck need to get checked out straight away by your dentist or doctor.

Q. What causes mouth cancer?

The health implications of smoking are well documented, but mouth cancer often gets overlooked.  Most mouth cancer cases globally continue to be as result of smoking and tobacco use, including smokeless tobacco, and it accounts for roughly two in every three mouth cancer cases in the UK. Drinking alcohol to excess is another major risk factor linked with mouth cancer – associated with around a third cases. There is also a huge danger to those who smoke and drink alcohol to excess, they increase their risk of mouth cancer by up to a whopping 30 times. One trend that we have seen lately is a rise in cases linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is transmitted through oral sex. HPV, which also causes cervical cancer, is very common and almost every sexually-active person will get it at some time in their lives but most people with HPV never develop health problems. But for some unfortunate people it can cause abnormal tissue growth and cancers.

Q. Am I at risk of mouth cancer?

In a word, yes. Everybody is at risk of developing mouth cancer. As well as the causes previously highlighted poor diet, low in whole fruits and vegetables, and even the environment we live in can play a factor in mouth cancer developing. Traditionally, mouth cancer has been thought of as a ‘man’s disease’ but more and more cases are being seen in younger people and women, the main thing is to be aware of the signs and symptoms and to be checking for them regularly.

Q. What should I do if I think I have a symptom of mouth cancer?

Time is key when it comes to mouth cancer, if you believe you or someone close to you has any symptom that could be related to the disease you should get it checked out by your dentist or doctor straight away, do not under any circumstance leave it to see if it will go away by itself.

Q. Why are cases of mouth cancer increasing so quickly?

While it’s important to remember that anybody can be diagnosed with mouth cancer, more than 90% of cases are estimated to be linked to our own lifestyles choices. Many more cases in recent years have been linked to HPV, but unfortunately not enough people are aware of the relationship between HPV and mouth cancer. Only by spreading awareness of the sign, symptoms and causes of mouth cancer can we help to bring about a change in this trend.

Q. What are my chances of beating mouth cancer?

Like previously mentioned time is key when it comes to beating mouth cancer. If your symptoms are picked up early enough, then the treatment and surgery is relatively straight forward and your chances of beating the disease is about 90%. But unfortunately, far too many cases are picked up late as people are unable to recognise the initial symptoms or even think they are at risk. If this is the case then the cancer may have spread to other areas, such as the lymph nodes, which makes its increasingly hard to treat. The chances of beating mouth cancer if this is the case is about 50%, but due to the extent of the treatment it can even then leave you with problems which you may currently take for granted, such as breathing, eating, drinking and even communicating.

Q. Will my dentist check me for signs of mouth cancer?

Your dentist has a commitment to carry out a visual check for mouth cancer during every regular check-up, many people are not even aware that it is even taking place. When your dentists is pulling your cheeks around with their mirror is when they are looking for anything unusual. There is no problem asking your dentist about a check if you are unsure about anything and they will be very happy to discuss it with you. The checks are nothing to be worried about but if you are there is an excellent video available on the Denplan website which shows what is involved in a mouth cancer check at your dentist.